Myth of the ‘Last-In’ Superstar

Resist the current notion by focusing instead on coaching your beginning teachers by GARY M. CHESLEY AND DIANE M. HARTMAN

Dateline: Any School, USA. Two language arts positions at the middle school are being considered for elimination owing to budget cutting. Due to certification and seniority, a talented middle school teacher will lose a job. Another middle school teacher will be transferred to the high school, taking the place of a first-year teacher who has received nothing but accolades for creativity and student engagement in his classes.

Feature_Chelsey1Gary Chesley (standing) joins his central-office staff in preparing a presentation on technology for new teachers

Across town, a middle school unified arts teacher is told that a series of reductions in force at the high school means she will be transferred to a core subject. The nontenured teacher, whose students are performing at higher levels than anyone expected and who is now teaching that core subject, will be moved to the high school. Guess what? An equally strong first-year teacher at the high school will be out of a job.


This musical chairs scenario happens in schools everywhere. For decades, when budgets dictated teacher cutbacks, no judgment of instructional skills was required. No evaluation of student results changed the inevitable outcome. No one consulted a summative evaluation to make the call. We just went to the personnel file, determined the hiring dates, and the last one in lost her or his chair.

In the new political landscape, lawmakers in state after state are anxiously sponsoring legislation eliminating “last-in, first-out” policies. News reports would have us believe every untenured teacher, with just a few months of experience, is a “Teacher of the Year” candidate, while every tenured professional is a money-grabbing, lazy and incompetent leech on the public payroll. With such thinking in today’s environment, superintendents will be under increasing pressure to retain less expensive “last-in stars” at the expense of more highly compensated classroom veterans.

Authentic Evaluation
The sad reality is that educators created this indefensible reduction-in-force system because, for decades, everyone understood that teacher evaluations did not really differentiate the good from the bad performers. Lacking valid, differentiated judgment, seniority became the default position when personnel cuts were mandated. Everyone in the profession recognized that far too often administrators fit evaluation into time not used for student discipline, facility management, special education planning, cafeteria monitoring, concerned parents and paperwork.


Feature_Diane_HartmanDiane Hartman

Evaluation rests on the assumption that administrators have the instructional breadth and expertise to turn the good teacher to great and the mediocre to acceptable by observing a couple of specially prepped classes and then writing a report. The evaluation tool employed to create this near miracle may be a checklist or a one-size-fits-all model applied with equal ambivalence to the beginner, just weeks from a college classroom, and to the 30-year veteran.

When the mandate arrives to eliminate last in/first out, principals and central-office administrators will need authentic evaluation strategies that include differentiated, purposeful and sequential steps that provide legitimate judgments about the teaching effectiveness and growth of these supposed last-in superstars.

Developmental Growth
Becoming a master teacher is a developmental process starting with the inexperienced young people graduating from our colleges. Measuring the last-in superstar and the 30-year veteran with the same tool is discouraging, counterproductive and largely an invalid process.

A focus on the components that make up sound professional practice, coached and then critiqued in smaller bites, makes more sense, builds confidence and provides a better focus for the evaluator and the beginner. This scaffolding approach tells the beginner that achieving mastery is a process of study and reflection, not just a product of time. The approach also puts the administrator into the role of coach and evaluator.

Charlotte Danielson lays the groundwork for such a developmental evaluation model in her three-book series, Enhancing Professional Practice. She identifies four professional practice domains — planning and preparation, classroom environment, instruction, and professional responsibilities — as the key characteristics of the master teacher.

The last-in stars currently graduating from our universities seek sound direction from older and respected leaders. The recent hires need to understand the potential path of their careers and how to reach their long-term goals. The millennial generation of teachers, more than the baby boomers and the Gen-Xers, wants to understand and put into practice the components of good instruction.

The millennials are more likely to flourish when they understand the school administration has an established professional growth and evaluation plan that acknowledges the initial stages of teacher development, including increasingly more sophisticated performance standards, and allows their input into the process. One-third of all beginning teachers quit before they complete three years in the profession. To improve these statistics, principals need a coaching/evaluation model to first teach inexperienced teachers and then provide them with feedback for growth.

Two components that require immediate attention with beginning teachers — classroom management and instructional planning — have a symbiotic relationship. Without a positive environment for learning, no plan can be executed to its full effect. Without sound planning, classroom conduct and routines make effective instruction improbable.

Established Routines
Classroom management consists of establishing routines that work efficiently, paired with rules that support good instruction. Classroom practices have to be taught and then performed as routines to save instructional time and to establish a predictable, efficient and secure environment. During the school’s orientation process, the principal should coach the beginner to set “a class routine” that complements the existing school culture.

All beginning teachers should be taught effective ways to establish routines for starting class, taking attendance , tallying lunch counts, managing transitions, establishing groups and seating, collecting and distributing materials, using the restroom usage, and acknowledging that students want to speak. Routines then can be taught to students in the first day(s) of school.

Few beginning educators grasp the importance of teaching routines that will set the tone for high school seniors as well as kindergartners. Positive behavior patterns result from clearly defined and well-executed procedures. For example, starting a class with a “do now” activity designed to practice and reinforce previously taught skills and concepts helps focus students on learning objectives.

Concurrently, beginning teachers need to set behavior limits, expectations and consequences. Principals need to teach the idea that it’s not about how many rules are posted, but rather having a few, clearly stated rules that everyone can understand and the teacher is willing to enforce. The principal’s role is to outline the schoolwide rules and suggest student and teacher behaviors that are required up and down the hall.

Once the novice establishes routines and rules — and these should be in place before day one of instruction — the principal needs to observe classes to critique the routines and rule enforcement. Offer suggestions, coach corrections, reinforce good decisions and then evaluate procedures all within the opening days of class. Early coaching, immediate feedback and follow-up coaching will lay a strong management foundation and prevent behavioral problems from festering early. The self-discipline to coach and observe novice teachers immediately as school begins is a key trait for the principal who is mentoring future superstars.

Coaching Novices
Early in the school year, we advise principals to coach the novice about the work of planning for instruction. In university preservice programs, lesson planning is given limited attention. It’s often artificial and generally does not include an assessment component, making this an area of trepidation for beginning teachers.

Danielson argues persuasively that an effective teacher has to understand the subject matter, the appropriate pedagogy and the students to develop an effective lesson. These three ideas form an excellent coaching framework. Using a “backwards planning critique,” as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest in Understanding by Design, makes coaching more understandable to the novice and gives the principal greater insight into the strategic instructional thinking of the teacher.

Coaching the planning process first entails asking questions of the novice: Tell me about the overall purpose of this unit. Why will these lessons be important to students? Is the information accurate? How does this idea fit into our curriculum? What skills and prior knowledge do the student need as the unit begins? What sort of thinking skills and questioning will be most effective for the lesson? How do ideas relate to one another? Tell me the reasoning you used in sequencing concepts.

Also, is there a clear distinction between goals and activities? What do activities contribute to understanding? What resources will be most powerful to you in executing this lesson? At what point do you anticipate some children will become confused? How will you differentiate or modify your lesson? Tell me different formative assessments you can use throughout the lesson or unit to check for understanding. How do you plan to know what they know and can do? What will you do with that information?

The novice with well-reasoned answers to all of these questions is a rare breed indeed. But the principal, working jointly with the young charge, can shape the lesson and make it ready for presentation. The millennial teacher will value guidance before the lesson, seeing it as a real investment in success.

The principal’s critique of the lesson again should be a joint venture. The beginner starts the conversation by reflecting on the lesson with his or her personal critique referring to the questions used in the initial session. The principal builds on those comments, providing further guidance and encouragement and emphasizing the point that thorough planning is the foundation of every good lesson.

A Wrong Signal
Some administrators will scoff at the immediacy in the timeline implied in this coaching model. The start of school can seem overwhelming to everyone. Where can we find the time? We view this issue as a matter of “pay me now or pay me later!”

After completing focus groups with beginning teachers and their mentors, we know that most novice professionals realize quickly that their university training did not give them an adequate basis for the real challenges of the classroom. The principal can develop a mentoring partnership to improve teaching and learning. She or he can build consistency in student behavior and classroom routines. By coaching new hires in the lesson planning process, the principal gains genuine insight into the abilities and possibilities of these young teachers.

The principal who invests coaching time in those early days of school will have a far better understanding of the needs of the new teachers. The principal ought to acknowledge that becoming a teacher is a developmental process. The central office should ensure the performance evaluation tools recognize that learning to teach is a process, the components of which cannot be digested in one sitting. We all learn step by step.

One thing a principal should never signal, through words or actions, is that the last-in beginner is a budding superstar. ?
Gary Chesley is the superintendent in Bethel, Conn. E-mail:
chesleyg@bethel.k12.ct.us. Diane Hartman is the principal of New Fairfield Middle School in New Fairfield, Conn.